Wolverines defensive end discusses how artform has helped him with his agility. Angelique S. Chengelis
Ann Arbor — Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich doesn’t stop moving or working, and he never ceases trying to find an edge. He is a bundle of energy now topped by a headful of bleached-blond long hair, and he sprinkles quotes in every interview from one of his main inspirations, UFC mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor, to help express what motivates him.
Winovich is third on the team in tackles with 24, tops among the defensive linemen. He leads the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss, and is second nationally in sacks (5.5) and 13th in tackles for loss (7.5). He also forced a fumble in the season opener.
In the offseason, he complemented the team’s grueling weight room workouts with something he thought might help his game — ballet.
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“I’m willing to do what other people aren’t,” Winovich said Tuesday after practice as Michigan continues preparations for the Michigan State game on Saturday night. “This winter I took a ballet class. I took 20 or so lessons with an instructor down the street, which I think helped me agility-wise and balance. I feel like I’m just a perfect fit for this.”
He distinguished himself in the Big Ten opener at Purdue when, in blazing hot conditions, he didn’t take a play off. He had three sacks and earned national and Big Ten defensive player of the week honors. Winovich said he wasn’t taxed, never got tired in that game and improved.
“It’s weird. I’ve been this way my whole life no matter what I’ve done, I like to consider myself a winner. Also with the name thing, Win-o-vich, it’s probably in the blood,” he said. “I feel like as time goes on, no matter what I’ve done if it’s checkers, chess, I’m at Pinball Pete’s down the street playing arcade games, as time goes on, I learn how my opponents play and how the game works. I feed off it. I get energy. I start playing better. I see their weaknesses, and I attack them, I exploit them.
“(Defensive line) Coach (Greg) Mattison was laying out the outline for how we’re going to get subs, and I said, ‘I don’t need a sub. I feel great.’ I felt better as time went on.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Winovich played like J.J. Watt in that game, and he and defensive coordinator Don Brown last week spoke of Winovich's determination on a touchdown-saving play.
Michigan defensive coordinator extols the virtues of defensive end. Angelique S. Chengelis
“Love him to death,” Brown said last week of Winovich. “The one thing that goes unnoticed in that game (against Purdue) is we’re tied 7-7, they run the tight end across the field and he breaks a tackle. If Chase doesn’t show up, it’s a touchdown, and now you’re down 14-7. He hustles over. Now, he’s also been on a pressure, so he got this close to the quarterback so when it was on your mark, get set, go, he started from that point and chased the tight end on a crossing route who was 10 yards down the field and made the tackle. Pushed the guy out of bounds.
“That play kind of epitomizes who is. Play starts, go, and don’t stop until the whistle blows. Easier said than done. Now you’d like to be able to think you could say that to a player and they’re just gonna respond. Some guys will go, it’s not blocked, and they stop watching. He’s running full speed the whole game. And I think his hair makes him a little faster.”
Center Patrick Kugler said Winovich’s performance against Purdue was pretty much the norm, although normal is not how he would describe his teammate. In fact, most of them, including Winovich, think he’s wired differently.
“Yeah, no, he’s crazy,” Kugler said, laughing. “There’s definitely a screw or two loose there, I’m not going to lie with you there. I’m happy he’s on my team and I don’t have to play against him because he’s a phenomenal player and he never gives up on a play.
“And you can tell that by everything he does. At practice, outside of the building, he’s just wired a little bit different. His freshman year he was on scout team playing linebacker, and whenever he made a play he’d do a little dance or something. He’s always had that kind of crazy attitude. That’s someone you don’t want to play against.”
Winovich acknowledges his approach might be a bit different. When he started playing defensive end 18 months ago at Michigan, that’s also when he discovered McGregor, a guy who decided to leave his work as a plumber to begin training for a new career.
“For me it was kind of like how I was a tight end and I said forget this and went to defensive end,” Winovich said.
When asked about having a screw loose, Winovich did not object. He explained it.
Wolverines defensive lineman discusses why he finds Irish mixed martial artist a font of wisdom. Angelique S. Chengelis
“There’s a great Conor McGregor quote — you’ve got to be obsessed, you’ve got to be a little crazy toward your craft,” Winovich said. “I believe I’m just that right amount of crazy. At the end of the day, I’m a normal person. I’m a fun-loving, hard-working individual trying to make my family proud out here.
“You’ve got to be a little crazy if you’re going to do what I plan to do. There’s also a good quote, the people who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world are the ones who usually do it. I believe I can accomplish great things here and beyond. I’m going to give it my best shot and see what happens.”
What’s happening now is Winovich is among the national leaders in key defensive categories on a defense ranked No. 1 in the nation. While teammates Rashan Gary and Maurice Hurst were getting all the preseason hype, Winovich was certain he would prove his value to the team, as well. He has always operated with the proverbial chip on the shoulder.
“I don’t think people viewed me as the weak link necessarily, but I definitely didn’t feel like I had their respect,” he said. “I’ve been waking up for years scrapping for these crumbs that these people have left for me. I feel for the first time I have bread in front of me and I can take a big bite out of the loaf.”
His teammates appreciate the effort Winovich puts into his game.
“I just know he gives 110 percent every play,” Kugler said. “It’s very hard to do on defense because it’s so strenuous and he’s found a way to do it and he’s showing everyone in the country he’s one of the best defensive linemen out there.”